Monday, April 02, 2012

Dear Gun Owners, You Won. Please Stop Lying Now

Do guns save lives? Well, the Gun Owners of America would like you to know the following:

"Law-abiding citizens use guns to defend themselves against criminals as many as 2.5 million times every year -- or about 6,850 times a day. This means that each year, firearms are used more than 80 times more often to protect the lives of honest citizens than to take lives."

GOA's source for this information, I was surprised to find, is an actual University study: Gary Kleck and Marc Gertz, "Armed Resistance to Crime: The Prevalence and Nature of Self-Defense With a Gun," The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, Northwestern University School of Law, 1995.

This is impressive. When conservatives want to make a point, my experience is that they tend to enjoy just making stuff up, so when I saw this important claim regarding guns and self-defense, I had to dig in.

Here's the actual study. Here's the way it was conducted:

"The interviewers then asked the following question: "Within the past five years, have you yourself or another member of your household used a gun, even if it was not fired, for self-protection (against a person) or for the protection of property at home, work, or elsewhere?" "R(esponsdents)s who reported a DGU (Defensive Gun Use) against a person were asked: "How many incidents involving defensive uses of guns against persons happened to members of your household in the past five years?" (T)here were 222 completed interviews with Rs reporting DGUs, another 1,610 Rs not reporting a DGU but going through the full interview by answering questions other than those pertaining to details of the DGUs. There were a total of 1,832 cases with the full interview." Finally, the correlation of their statistics suggests that "Americans use guns for self-protection as often as 2.1 to 2.5 million times a year."

Ok, that means that Gun Owners of America achieved the statistic at the start of this post by the following means. (1.) Assume that this survey of 1,832 people done two decades ago is representative of more than three hundred millions Americans today, (2.) assume every one in the survey is telling the truth, (3.) and don't bother checking any other sources, like say crime statistics for instance. But here's the kicker. GOA assumes that when someone uses a gun for "self-protection against a person" that in every case they get to label the person a criminal, even though criminality has no direct connection to the survey or its response.

GOA isn't telling the truth. So how often are guns actually used defensively in America? According to a Department of Justice Study from the 1990s, about 38 times a day, or about 0.4% as often as GOA claims. Put it another way. The total number of people shot by guns in the US in 2008 totaled 110,215. This suggests that between 10 and 11 Americans suffer a gun injury for every instance of a gun being used defensively.

So what's the scam? Does the gun lobby need to lie like this? They've been winning all the big battles. Democrats have given up on the assault weapons ban and pretty much every other gun control measure. (Although according to the National Rifle Association, when Democrats give up on gun control, it's actually a secret plot to create MORE gun control.)

The scam is this: "Defensive gun use" is at the heart of Florida's disastrous "stand your ground" law, which was enacted in 2005 and is now considered a model for legislative efforts in other states. According to this law, "A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony."

John F. Timoney, former Miami Police Chief, has a good discussion of the problems with the Florida law in a recent article in the New York Times:

Until 2005, in all 50 states, the law on the use of force for civilians was pretty simple. If you found yourself in a situation where you felt threatened but could safely retreat, you had the duty to do so. (A police officer does not have the duty to retreat; that is the distinction between a sworn police officer and the average citizen regarding use of force.) 

Police officers are trained to de-escalate highly charged encounters with aggressive people, using deadly force as a last resort. Citizens, on the other hand, may act from emotion and perceived threats. But “stand your ground” gives citizens the right to use force in public if they feel threatened. As the law emphatically states, a citizen has “no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground.” 

During one debate, one of the law’s proponents suggested that if a citizen felt threatened in a public space, he should not have to retreat and should be able to meet force with force. I pointed out that citizens feel threatened all the time, whether it’s from the approach of an aggressive panhandler or squeegee pest or even just walking down a poorly lighted street at night. In tightly congested urban areas, public encounters can be threatening; a look, a physical bump, a leer, someone you think may be following you. This is part of urban life. You learn to navigate threatening settings without resorting to force. Retreating is always the best option.

So, having obtained the right to carry concealed weapons and to shoot anyone who they feel is threatening them, gun owners have to finally be satisfied they have enough "rights", right? Not quite. In Indiana, Governor Mitch Daniels has just signed a law giving citizens the right to shoot police officers if they "reasonably" think police are illegally entering their home or vehicle.

Last month, a teenager named Trayvon Martin was shot and killed in Florida by 28-year-old George Zimmerman. According to Sanford, Flordia police Zimmerman's conduct was legally justified under Florida's "stand your ground law," despite the fact the Martin was unarmed. This past Friday, Bill Maher summarized the situation well when he said,

“This is a cautionary tale about what happens when the Democrats completely lay down on an issue and let the right get whatever they want. You get insanity. Arming panicky, untrained vigilantes like George Zimmerman and telling them it’s okay to shoot whenever they’re afraid is like dumping all the milk bones on the kitchen floor and telling your dog, ‘Just eat when you’re hungry.’”

If we give everyone a gun and a license to blast away, even at law enforcement officers, America will be no different than the kill-crazy wild west of the 19th century. Living in Virginia City, Nevada in early 1860s Mark Twain wrote, "these long-tailed heroes of the revolver... killed each other on slight provocation, and hoped and expected to be killed themselves—for they held it almost shame to die otherwise than "with their boots on," as they expressed it." Apparently, this is how a lot of gun owners still envision life in America. But it's not a place where I want to live.